Last weekend, one of my favourite screen adaptations from last year visited the televisions of those of you over the pond. Great Expectations continues on PBS this weekend, starring Gillian Anderson, Douglas Booth and others. After you have all finished watching the final episodes, I’ll post my review. Meanwhile, here are my thoughts on the novel itself…
Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in the BBC's Great Expectations. Photo: BBC
I read the book a few months ago and thought that it would make sense to post my reflections on one of Charles Dickens’ most famous pieces of work. I am no expert on Charles Dickens, nor do I pretend to be, so please read my thoughts with that in mind – these are simply my meanderings.
Rating: 4 out of 5 somersaults.
Favourite character: Herbert Pocket
Least favourite character: Orlick
A favourite quotation:
“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are the rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.”
Although Dickens wrote about the grim skyline of London in the 19th century, he added sparkle and wit paired with mystery and suspense to make the novel an enjoyable read, despite the often strange and eerie atmosphere which was intentionally created. The narration was wonderful and I particularly enjoyed the humorous aspects of the dialogue; for instance, the cautious Mr Wemmick and Pip visiting his “castle” and the charmingly hilarious occasions when Joe and the young Pip were learning how to spell. I loved this moment when the young Pip, dreaming of becoming apprenticed to Joe, wrote a message for him on his slate:
“MI DEER JO i OPE U R KR WITE WELL i OPE i SHAL SON B HABELL 4 2 TEEDGE U JO AN THEN WE SHORL B SO GLODD AN WEN i M PRENGTD 2 U JO WOT LARX AN BLEVE ME INF XN PIP.” […]
“Astonishing!” said Joe, when I had finished. “You ARE a scholar.”
Towards the end, I admit that the protagonist, Pip, was starting to get on my nerves. I found his character frustrating because he simply could not see that Estella was manipulative, spoilt and abhorrent. He might have been blinded by love, but I thought he was just blind altogether. I found the villains of the story creepy and gruesome; however, they were the ones who kept me turning the pages as I needed to make sure that “the good ended happily, and the bad ended unhappily. That is what fiction means,” (to quote the omniscient Miss Prism).
After reading the novel, I felt extremely dissatisfied with the ending. Did Estella deserve Pip? No. My immediate reaction was that I wished Pip had fallen in love with Biddy and ended up marrying her; however, I gradually saw the flaws with this proposed ending. Firstly, Biddy was too nice for Pip, who was too materialistic and bad with money. Joe, although described as “the village idiot,” was at least honest and kind-hearted. The only satisfactory ending for me was the marriage between the colourful Herbert Pocket and the sweet (but boring) Clara Barley.
I have also read that the original ending was written so that Estelle married again and Pip was left alone and single. Would this have been more appropriate? I think it would. I do not believe that Estella deserved him, and in many ways, Pip did not deserve her. If they had married, things would not have ended well. Pip sees everything surrounding her as rose-tinted, and he fails to see reality. Estella, on the other hand, is too obnoxious and cruel. Ultimately, we are meant to feel that she has changed and moved on, but I am still left with doubts.
I realise that Great Expectations is not a romantic novel; it is a story full of villains, heroes, humorous storylines, twists and subplots. This is Dickens, not Austen. Yet, if they are definitely not going to marry ‘happily ever after,’ why does the author have to waver between a half-hearted marriage used as a simple plot device, and one which would be miserably depressing, yet more dramatic. Personally, endings have a bigger dramatic impact if they are definite, not ambiguous. Apparently, Dickens’ publishers complained that the original ending was too sad; however, Great Expectations is a sombre book in many respects and I think that it would have fitted in more with the novel as a whole.
I hope that you do not think that I am being too negative. Let me reassure you, although there were some things which I found frustrating about the novel, I read through it with great enthusiasm and animation. I have given it 4/5 somersaults because it is a brilliant work of fiction on a completely different level to other (dare I say, contemporary?) books. I loved it; however, I did not enjoy it as much as I enjoyed reading Little Dorrit where Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clennam were more amiable characters than Pip and Estella, I found.
What were your thoughts? Have I got it completely wrong? (I might have.) I’d love to hear your opinions, too.
Edit: See here for thoughts on the BBC’s adaptation (2011).